Saturday, March 25, 2006

Feast of the Incarnation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, one of the Great Solemnities of the Christian faith. Doctrinally it's arguably the second most important feast in the Christian calendar.* (Liturgically, of course, Christmas has for a complicated set of reasons absorbed most of what pertains to the Feast of the Annunciation; thus, while the Annunciation is technically the Feast of the Incarnation, most of the Annunciation-related celebration occurs around Christmas.) Of course, both doctrinal and liturgical importance here are measured Christologically. The Annunciation is also the most important Mariological feast of the calendar (Mariology being Christology in the key of Mary), in which Mary takes the part of the New Eve and sums up in herself the obedience of all the righteous of Israel; one of its common names in English is Lady Day.

Here is John Keble's poem in The Christian Year for this day:

Oh Thou who deign'st to sympathize
With all our frail and fleshly ties,
Maker yet Brother dear,
Forgive the too presumptuous thought,
If, calming wayward grief, I sought
To gaze on Thee too near.

Yet sure 'twas not presumption, Lord,
'Twas thine own comfortable word
That made the lesson known:
Of all the dearest bonds we prove,
Thou countest sons' and mothers' love
Most sacred, most thine own.

When wandering here a little span,
Thou took'st on Thee to rescue man,
Thou hadst no earthly sire:
That wedded love we prize so dear,
As if our heaven and home were here,
It lit in Thee no fire.

On no sweet sister's faithful breast
Wouldst thou thine aching forehead rest,
On no kind brother lean:
But who, O perfect filial heart,
E'er did like Thee a true son's part,
Endearing, firm, serene?

Thou wept'st, meek maiden, mother mild,
Thou wept'st upon thy sinless child,
Thy very heart was riven:
And yet, what mourning matron here
Would deem thy sorrows bought too dear
By all on this side Heaven?

A son that never did amiss,
That never sham'd his mother's kiss,
Nor cross'd her fondest prayer:
Even from the three he deign'd to bow
For her his agonized brow,
Her, his sole earthly care.

Ave Maria! blessed Maid!
Lily of Eden's fragrant shade,
Who can express the love
That nurtur'd thee so pure and sweet,
Making thy heart a shelter meet
For Jesus' holy Dove?

Ave Maria! Mother blest,
To whom caressing and caress'd
Clings the Eternal Child;
Favoured beyond Archangels' dream,
When first on thee with tenderest gleam
Thy new-born Saviour smil'd:

Ave Maria! Thou whose name
All but adoring love may claim,
Yet may we reach thy shrine;
For He, thy Son and Saviour, vows
To crown all lowly lofty brows
With love and joy like thine.

Bless'd is the womb that bare Him bless'd
The bosom where his lips were press'd,
But rather bless'd are they
Who hear his word and keep it well,
The living homes where Christ shall dwell,
And never pass away.

A different sort of Annunciation Day poem, this time by Oscar Wilde:

Ave Maria Gratia Plena

Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danaƫ ,
Or a dread vision as when Semele,
Sickening for love and unappeased desire,
Prayed to see God's clear body, and the fire
Caught her brown limbs and slew her utterly.
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand
And over both the white wings of a dove.

[March 25 is also (if you have forgotten) the day that the One Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom; it is often thought that Tolkien's choice of this date was influenced by the Catholic calendar (since the Feast of the Annunciation is a stable feast) and by traditional legends that make this sort of the Day of Everything -- creation of the world, sacrifice of Isaac, beheading of John the Baptist, deliverance of Peter from prison, martyrdom of James the Greater, etc., etc.]

There is a long history of recognizing the Feast of the Annunciation as a sort of Christian New Year. So make a resolution on this new cycle of grace, contemplate the Holy Incarnation, and have a happy Lady Day.

How numerous, O Lord, my God, you have made your wondrous deeds! And in your plans for us there is none to equal you. Should I wish to declare or tell them, too many are they to recount. (Ps. 40:5)
*It should go without saying, but might not, that the most important feast in the Christian calendar is Easter Sunday, the Feast of the Resurrection.

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